The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Study Guide

An illustration from the Wizard of Oz depicting Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man
An illustration from the first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Library of Congress

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, is a book that has transcended its time and place. More than a century after its publication, it remains a seminal piece of popular culture (helped, of course, by the iconic 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland).

Much of the novel’s continued popularity and presence can be attributed the stunning imagination that Baum brought to the work. Equally important, however, is the fact that the story lends itself to multiple interpretations.

New generations continue to reinterpret the tale, despite Baum's own insistence in the original introduction that the story “was written solely to please children of today.”

Plot

Dorothy is a young girl living in Kansas with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. A cyclone hits; terrified, Dorothy’s dog Toto hides under the bed. Dorothy goes to fetch him as her aunt and uncle hide in the cellar. The Cyclone carries the whole house—with Dorothy and Toto in it—away.

When they land, Dorothy discovers that she has arrived in Munchkinland, part of the Land of Oz. The house has landed on and killed the Wicked Witch of the East. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, arrives. She gives Dorothy the Wicked Witch’s silver slippers and tells her that to get home she will have to travel down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City to ask for help from the Wizard.

As Dorothy and Toto travel, they meet three companions: A Scarecrow, a Tin Woodman, and a Cowardly Lion.

Each lack something—the Scarecrow needs a brain, the Tin Woodman needs a heart, and the Lion needs courage—so Dorothy suggests they all travel to the Emerald City together to ask the Wizard for help. At the Emerald City, the Wizard agrees to give them each what they seek if they kill the Wicked Witch of the West.

In Winkie Land, the Wicked Witch sees them coming, and attacks them several times on the way. Finally the Witch uses a magical Golden Cap to summon flying monkeys, who tear the stuffing out of the Scarecrow, dent the Woodman badly, and capture Dorothy, Toto, and the Lion.

The Wicked Witch makes Dorothy her slave and tricks her out of one of her silver shoes. This annoys Dorothy and in a fit of anger she throws water on the Witch, and is astonished to see her melt away. The Winkies are delighted and ask the Tin Woodman to become their king, which he agrees to do once Dorothy is home. Dorothy uses the Golden Cap to have the Flying Monkeys carry them back to the Emerald City.

There, Toto accidentally reveals the truth: The Wizard is just an ordinary man who traveled from Omaha via hot air balloon many years before. He gives the Scarecrow new stuffing in his head for brains, the Woodman a stuffed silk heart, and the Lion a potion for courage. The Wizard agrees to take Dorothy home with him in his balloon, appointing the Scarecrow ruler in his absence, but once again Toto runs off and as Dorothy gives chase the Wizard accidentally cuts his lines and floats away.

Dorothy asks the Flying Monkeys to carry her home, but they cannot cross the desert that bounds Oz on all sides.

She and her friends set off to Quadling Country to seek the help of Glinda. Along the way the Lion is asked to become king of the animals in a forest and agrees to do so once Dorothy is home. The Flying Monkeys are summoned for a third and final time to fly them the rest of the way to Glinda. Glinda tells Dorothy that her silver shoes will take her anywhere she wishes to go, and then uses the Golden Cap to ask the Flying Monkeys to take her friends to their respective new kingdoms, and then sets the Monkeys free.

Dorothy returns joyously to Kansas with Toto, ecstatic to be home.

Major Characters

Dorothy: The protagonist of the story. She is a young girl from Kansas who lives with her aunt and uncle on their farm. She maintains a cheerful and childlike happiness in the face of adversity, and demonstrates bravery in frightening moments.

She has little patience for deception or indecisiveness.

The Scarecrow: A scarecrow whose greatest wish is to have the intelligence he believes he lacks. He joins Dorothy's journey to the Wizard in order to request a brain.  

The Tin Woodman: A former woodchopper who was cursed by the Wicked Witch of the East. Her spell caused an enchanted axe to chop off each of his limbs. The Tin Woodman slowly replaced every part of his body with tin, but he did not replace his heart. He wants to ask the Wizard for a heart.

The Cowardly Lion: A lion who believes himself to be a coward. 

The Wicked Witch of the West: The sister of The Wicked Witch of the East (who was killed accidentally by Dorothy). She is very powerful and very angry at all times, and is greedy for more power.

The Wizard. An ordinary human who, like Dorothy, traveled into Oz by accident. Taken to be a powerful wizard by the inhabitants of Oz, he goes along with the ruse and builds up an illusion of immense power, though he means no harm.

Glinda the Good Witch of the North. A good witch, Glinda is kind and merciful, but her influence diminishes away from her home in the North. She attempts to safeguard and guide Dorothy throughout her adventures.

Themes

Many of the themes of the book can be seen as simple lessons Baum wished to convey to his young readers.

Childhood Innocence: The story celebrates a conception of childhood that combines duty, virtue, and good behavior with an unfettered imagination. Baum paints Dorothy as thoroughly enjoying her voyage through the magical world of Oz while never flagging in her determination to return home.

Inner Strength: Through the story many of the characters start off believing themselves to be lacking in some fundamental way—the brains, courage, and heart Dorothy’s companions wish for, and Dorothy herself seeks a way to get home—that they turn out to have always possessed.

Friendship: The power of helping others and caring for them triumphs over the greed and anger of the Wicked Witch. None of the characters would have found what they wanted without the help of the others.

Literary Style and Devices

Straightforward Text: Inspired by classic fairy tales, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is written in a straightforward, plain way that is easy for children to read and understand.

Bright Colors: Baum uses a lot of description, emphasizing bright colors and exuberant descriptions in order to generate mental images.

Repetition: Baum uses repetition powerfully. Goals, important details, and other aspects of the story are repeated, as are plot points—there are several smaller quests nested inside the main one of Dorothy getting home, for example.

Compartmentalized Chapters: Baum makes it easy to keep things straight by focusing each chapter on a single main event, with a clear end-point when the chapter finishes. This style makes it easier to easy to read the story in several sittings, as a parent might to a children.

Interpretations of The Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is frequently interpreted as more than just a children’s story. Complex political, social, and historical theories have been credited to it.

Populism. One of the most famous theories involves the populist movement that collapsed in the late 19th century, linked to the debate over monetary policy. According to this theory, Dorothy represents the American people as innocent and easily fooled, while other characters represent aspects of society or politicians of the time. Economic forces and theories are represented by The Yellow Brick Road (the gold standard) and the Emerald City (paper money), and the Wizard is the deceptive politicians manipulating the public. There’s more to the theory, but the more you dig into it the less sense it tends to make.

Religion. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is frequently identified as a coded allegory by both Christians and atheists, usually using the same symbols in different ways. For religious readers, the story can be seen as a tale of resisting temptations and battling evil through faith. For atheists, the Wizard is a deity who is ultimately revealed to be a sham.

Feminism. There is evidence of a feminist subtext in The Wizard of Oz. The male characters are all lacking—they are fakes, cowards, and frozen, or part of otherwise oppressed or passive groups. The women—Dorothy and Glinda most notably—are the true powers in Oz.

Legacy

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz continues to be read by children and adults around the world. It has been adapted many times for stage and screen and continues to influence both children’s literature and adult fiction. The story's imagery and symbolism—the Yellow Brick Road, the silver shoes (turned into Ruby Slippers for the classic film), the green-skinned witch, the fanciful companions—are regularly used in new works as both callbacks and reinterpretation.

The book is often described as the first American fairy tale, and is indeed one of the first children’s stories to specifically refer to American locations and culture.

Quotes

  • “There is no place like home.”
  • “Oh no, my dear; I'm really a very good man; but I'm a very bad Wizard, I must admit.”
  • “Brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.”
  • “The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”
  • “How can you talk if you haven’t got a brain? I don’t know… But some people without brains do an awful lot of talking… don’t they?”

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Fast Facts

Title: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Author: L. Frank Baum

Publisher: George M. Hill Company

Year Published: 1900

Genre: Children's novel 

Original language: English 

Themes: Childhood innocence, inner strength, friendship 

Characters: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Wizard, Glinda the Good Witch of the North

Notable adaptations: The Wizard of Oz (1939, dir. Victor Fleming) 

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Somers, Jeffrey. "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Study Guide." ThoughtCo, May. 11, 2018, thoughtco.com/wizard-of-oz-study-guide-4164720. Somers, Jeffrey. (2018, May 11). The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Study Guide. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/wizard-of-oz-study-guide-4164720 Somers, Jeffrey. "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Study Guide." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/wizard-of-oz-study-guide-4164720 (accessed May 24, 2018).